Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Basics: Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney

The Importance a Well-Drafted Estate Plan

The benefits of a complete estate plan (and the consequences of failing to make one) are immeasurable.  For parents of minor children, a properly-drafted will ensures your children will be cared for by people you know and trust in the event of your death, not someone chosen by a judge you've never met.   This reason alone makes life without an estate plan unacceptable for most families with small children, mine included.

Aside from wills, other useful estate planning tools can be tailored to your needs.  If appropriate for you, a living trust can ensure your property is not tied up in probate after your death.  Failure to plan ahead will often leave your loved ones unable to quickly distribute property, instead forcing them to spend a year and considerable sums of money muddling through the court system, unable to move on after a death in the family.  A living trust and other documents can help avoid all of this.  There are numerous other well-documented benefits to a solid estate plan.

Competent legal advice for your estate plan is of enormous value.  The law governing wills draws back on centuries of English legal tradition before the existence of the United States.  Many of the rules about witnessing, signatures, and other formalities are both archaic and draconian.  However, failure to comply with these formalities often invalidates an entire will--an experienced estate planning attorney can help you avoid errors that could cost your family tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future.   The following are some practical considerations about hiring an attorney:

Barriers to Hiring at Attorney

I hear people of all ages and walks of life saying, "I have been meaning to get a will/trust.  I just haven't gotten around to it yet."  Inertia can certainly be a factor.  And hiring an attorney to help with
your estate planning can be daunting, particularly if you have never worked with an attorney before, or don't know anyone who could offer a reference.

I can understand the hesitation to seek out an attorney.  In over six years as a JAG in the Air Force, I formed an attorney-client relationship with well over 500 clients in matters ranging from simply updating a power of attorney, to helping terminally ill retirees with their wills, and even to serious criminal cases during my time as an Area Defense Counsel.  Most of my clients were seeing an attorney for the first time in their life.  Some of them told me they felt embarrassed to seek help at first or didn't know what to expect from an attorney.  But after working together, I believe many of my clients felt much more at ease about their legal issues and confident in their knowledge of the process.  I feel it is crucial to find someone that makes you feel comfortable, and who empowers you to take charge of your legal affairs.

Practical Tips for Finding an Attorney that Works for You

When looking for an estate planning attorney, make sure to research your options.  If you know and feel comfortable with an attorney in your local area, call and ask for recommendations.  Even if estate planning is not the attorney's specialty, he or she may be happy to point you in the right direction.  If you know people who have hired attorneys, ask about their experiences. 

If you don't know any attorneys or former clients, compare the websites of some of the estate planning attorneys in your area.  Do they specialize in one or two areas of law, or are they general practitioners with many specialties?  Have they practiced in other areas before? 

Feel free to interview several attorneys before hiring one.  Ask up front if they will do a free consultation.  Pay close attention to the "bedside manner" of each attorney.  Do you comfortable asking for clarification when you don't understand something, or do you seem to be under pressure to get out of the office quickly?  When you call the receptionist, are you treated respectfully?  Are your calls returned? 

When you interview attorneys, make sure to ask them about their philosophy.  Why do they practice law?  In my time as a JAG, I developed my own philosophy:   It is better to spend most of my time carefully listening to my clients' concerns, and only then offering advice, than to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions.  I find that doing this gives the client more confidence in the process, and ultimately yields a solution better suited to their needs.  There are other successful philosophies out there, but the important thing is that you find an attorney whose philosophy fits your needs.

Published by the Law Office of Ian Holzhauer in Naperville, IL.  

Note:  The information above is not legal advice and is not the basis of an attorney-client relationship.  If you need assistance, you can hire an attorney to assist you with your individual legal needs.  

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